Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change

  • Published

Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change edited by Kurt M. Campbell. Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 237 pp.

Dr. Kurt M. Campbell, editor of Climatic Cataclysm, is the chief executive officer and cofounder of the Center for a New American Security and director of the Aspen Strategy Group. He also served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific in the Clinton administration. His book includes nine chapters, two (the introduction and conclusion) by Dr. Campbell and an associate and seven by various science and policy experts. The recurring theme throughout concerns the spectrum of potential security challenges created by climate change—a theme expanded upon in three plausible scenarios.

“National Security and Climate Change in Perspective,” the introductory chapter by Dr. Campbell and Christine Parthemore, sets the stage for examining climate change as an environmental force that can severely affect international security. The authors begin by illuminating the context of where environmental issues, and those dealing specifically with climate change, have intersected with broader national security issues of the past. The story begins during the Cold War, when environmental security matters such as water scarcity and resource competition prompted discussion but little else in the struggle between the two superpowers. It ends with a brief examination of three climate change scenarios that may plausibly occur between 30 and 100 years from now: expected, severe, and catastrophic. The authors conclude that, despite the well-known and significant security implications of climate change, we lack the political will to unite public opinion, special interests, and world governments in response to this critical challenge to global security.

Chapter 2, “Can History Help with Global Warming?” by noted environmental historian Dr. J. R. McNeill of Georgetown University, provides a retrospective examination of the influence of natural shocks, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and epidemics on human progress over the ages. Importantly, he points out that the pace of current warming is unprecedented in the history of human civilization—a sober assessment that all readers should remember. To frame that summation, he explains the spatial and temporal limitations of the effects of and humanity’s responses to natural and environmental calamities in the past, including violent conflict, intensified cooperation, political upheaval, and religious fervor. McNeill asserts that global climate change differs from those events insofar as it represents a multifaceted, international phenomenon without spatial or temporal limitations that remains difficult to anticipate. Consequently, and unfortunately, what we know about the past may have no relevance to the future.

After a brief review of the potential effects of climate change during the next 30 to 100 years, ecologist Dr. Jay Gulledge of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change introduces “Three Plausible Scenarios of Future Climate Change” in the third chapter. The expected scenario anticipates a 1.3°C (2.3°F) rise in temperature within the next 30 years, based on a midrange expectation of continued emissions of greenhouse gas, which could result in destructive increases in sea levels, more extreme weather events, droughts of greater frequency and intensity, and progressive water scarcity. Benefits include reduction in home-heating costs, decreased mortality from cold weather, and larger forest and agricultural yields in some regions. The severe scenario foresees a 2.6°C (4.5°F) increase in global temperatures—a phenomenon thought unlikely unless scientists have underestimated certain climate forcings and the responsiveness of the climate system. This scenario would produce a larger and more rapid increase in sea levels, water shortages affecting over 2 billion people, and global declines in fisheries and crop yields. Lastly, the catastrophic scenario, based on the collapse of land-based ice sheets and of the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation system, would see temperatures increasing 5.6°C (10.1°F) on average over the next 100 years. These collapses could result in a 2 meter (6.6 feet) rise in global sea level, massive flooding in the megadelta regions (the Nile, Yangtze, Ganges, etc.), widespread crop failures in traditional breadbasket regions, global water shortages, and reduction in the number of inhabited areas in many regions of the planet. Each of the three scenarios results in increasing degrees of instability, disruptions of ecosystems, and national security repercussions.

John Podesta and Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress begin the book’s detailed examination of each scenario in chapter 4, “Security Implications of Climate Scenario 1: Expected Climate Change over the Next Thirty Years.” They describe the expected scenario as a world “in which people and nations are threatened by massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks” (p. 97). The depressing conclusion asserts the inevitability of these predicted changes, noting the lack of any technological or policy solutions on the horizon that could prevent them. Nevertheless, the authors recommend some optimistic strategies for preventing conflict, mitigating changes, and managing risks associated with climate change.

Chapter 5, “Security Implications of Climate Scenario 2: Severe Climate Change over the Next Thirty Years,” by national security specialist Dr. Leon Fuerth, examines the uncertainty and complexity of climate change science and the possibility of surprises, based on nonlinear and abrupt changes. The author then looks at the sensitivity of certain regions and the ways that systemic events such as global die-offs and pandemics could affect security and stability. Ultimately, he finds hope in the power of science and engineering to create global solutions that could change history.

Sharon Burke, an energy and national security professional from the Center for a New American Security and the author of chapter 6, “Security Implications of Climate Scenario 3: Catastrophic Climate Change over the Next One Hundred Years,” addresses the potential catastrophic effects from the shutdown of the thermohaline circulation system in the Atlantic, the rapid loss of polar ice, and the resulting devastating rise in global sea levels. The dire consequences of these events include a collapse of globalization and international institutions as well as an increase in intrastate and asymmetric conflict. Even so, Ms. Burke sees some hopeful trends in science and technology developments and the enormously positive influence of human determination, hope, and cooperative relationships.

The seventh chapter, “A Partnership Deal: Malevolent and Malignant Threats,” by R. James Woolsey, former CIA director, considers climate change a malignant threat to national security. Woolsey also voices his concern about the more malevolent products of the climate system reaching a catastrophic tipping point in the form of massively destructive terrorism. He fears that positive feedback loops within the climate system may melt polar ice, release massive quantities of the greenhouse gas methane, and send the climate and international system into total chaos that could enable the rise of widespread terrorism, which in turn could instigate massive damage and casualties internationally. Like the other authors, Mr. Woolsey offers several recommendations to counteract both the malignant and malevolent security threats generated by climate change, including increased energy efficiency, decentralized energy generation, carbon capture and sequestration, and incentives for renewable energy technologies, among others.

Chapter 8, “Setting the Negotiating Table: The Race to Replace Kyoto by 2012,” by Julianne Smith and Alexander T. J. Lennon of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, scrutinizes the roles that the United States, China, and Europe are playing and could play in negotiations regarding international climate change. Smith and Lennon posit that the only hope for a viable solution to climate change involves the cooperation of United States, China, and Europe. After the US election in November 2008, the authors see signs of progressive change in all three entities and the possible establishment of a global carbon cap-and-trade system.

The last chapter, “Conclusion: The Clear Implications of Global Climate Change,” by Dr. Campbell and Dr. Richard Weitz, a national security specialist at the Hudson Institute, confirms many of the deductions of the other authors. They assert that climate change clearly “has the potential to be one of the greatest national security challenges that this or any other generation of policymakers is likely to confront” (p. 214).

This compilation of scenarios and recommendations represents many of the thoughts of climate scientists and policy makers who have serious concerns that global warming is changing and will change our planet, thus affecting international security/stability. The scenarios illuminate deleterious challenges that all security specialists should know about and contemplate. Furthermore, those scenarios, along with the contributors’ recommendations, offer templates for planning and policy making that will help decision makers move forward with this very complex and worrisome issue. I highly recommend Climatic Cataclysm to anyone interested in US national security and international security.

Dr. John T. Ackerman

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."